Atari Flashback versus Commodore 64 30-in-1


Atari Flashback versus Commodore 64 30-in-1

Author, Screenshots and Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton

Special Thanks: Evan Koblentz of Computer Collector newsletter for providing the systems for and participating in the brief, but intense, hands-on review process

Special Notes: A version of this review appeared in the Computer Collector newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 46: Dec. 20, 2004

 


The popularity of "TV games", which are the class of devices with a fixed number of built-in videogames that plugs directly to the inputs of a television set, has exploded over the past couple of years. TV games have a simple plug-and-play appeal and often impulse purchase price point. The obvious mass market appeal of these devices has left manufacturers looking for ways to either outdo one other in value or to appeal to a niche audience with nostalgia. Two of the latest such devices, the Atari Flashback and the Commodore 64 30-in-1, try to do a little of both, with varying degrees of success.

 

The Atari Flashback comes in a colorful, oversized box, but the system itself and the two detachable controllers are surprisingly tiny. The device features a nice selection of not only 15 Atari 2600 games, but also as befits the obvious inspiration for the design of the unit and its controllers, five Atari 7800 games. Since this is a review of the hardware and implementation, the individual games will not be specifically reviewed. Instead, this unit, as with the Commodore 64 30-in-1, will be analyzed in several key categories, including the way the games are implemented.

 

The 20 games for the Flashback are as follows, listed with their original publisher and release date, as well as with AtariAge's original cartridge rarity scale of 1 - 10, with ten being the hardest to find:

 

Atari 2600

Adventure (Atari, 1980, Rarity 2), Air-Sea Battle (Atari, 1977, 3), Battlezone (Atari, 1983, 2), Breakout (Atari, 1978, 2, Paddles), Canyon Bomber (Atari, 1978, Rarity 2, Paddles), Crystal Castles (Atari, 1984, 2), Gravitar (Atari, 1983, 2), Haunted House (Atari, 1981, 2), Millipede (Atari, 1984, 3), Saboteur (Atari, 1984, Officially Unreleased), Sky Diver (Atari, 1978, 2), Solaris (Atari, 1986, 2), Sprintmaster (Atari, 1988, 4), Warlords (Atari, 1981, 1, Paddles) and Yars’ Revenge (Atari, 1981, 2)

 

Atari 7800

Asteroids (Atari, 1984, Rarity 1), Centipede (Atari, 1984, 1), Desert Falcon (Atari, 1987, 2), Charley Chuck’s Food Fight - originally just Food Fight (Atari, 1984, 2) and Planet Smashers (Atari, 1990, 5)

As can be seen from the list above, all 20 games are originally Atari properties, so no other manufacturer is represented in this collection. Further, most games are generally of the commonly collectible variety and developed fairly early on in each system's lifecycle, with the exception of the 2600's Sprintmaster and the 7800's Planet Smashers, which are both notable for being among the last games officially released for their respective platforms and relatively unknown to even hardcore gamers. Saboteur is also notable, because it's not only programmed by the infamous Howard Scott Warshaw - developer of games like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari, 1982, 1) and Yars' Revenge (included) - but also boldly listed as "unreleased". While this is technically true as the game was never released by Atari originally, AtariAge had recently worked with Warshaw to create a full color boxed cartridge version complete with manual. Warshaw was even at AtariAge's booth at Philly Classic 5 signing copies of the game. Unfortunately, with the pending release of Flashback, Atari felt it was in their best interest to have AtariAge remove all copies of Saboteur from their sales channel, so Flashback is presently the only way to play the game, which, as will become clear later, is not necessarily ideal.

 

It is important to note that while the original Atari 7800 had superior visuals compared to the Atari 2600, they both shared the same sound chip. In fact, the Atari 7800 was almost completely backwards compatible with the Atari 2600, hence the logic behind modeling the system design on the 2600's lesser known sibling and including games for both.

 

In a rare move for a TV game, the Flashback does not have the ability to run on batteries, only with the included AC adapter, limiting its immediate portability. After plugging in the AC adapter, the composite video and mono audio cables, and one or two of the joysticks, the unit is ready to be powered on. After a short intro screen, the game selection menu is displayed. Any of the alphabetically listed 20 games is selectable, or, by highlighting the on-screen system's cartridge port, a very brief textual history. The menu, while attractive, does not display the name of the game on the virtual cartridge until you highlight it, and the menu must be browsed sequentially by moving the joystick up or down, not left or right. The included manual does a nice job of explaining the operation of the unit and how to play each game.

 

After highlighting the game of your choice and pressing the joystick's fire button, the game begins. When holding the diminutive joystick in your hand, you will be surprised to notice how well it seems to fit. Unlike the Atari 7800's somewhat bulky controller, the Flashback's feels just right. Also, unlike the 7800 controller's awkward stick and stiff fire buttons, the Flashback's is highly responsive, which is practically a revolution in the world of TV games, where overall controller quality is often overlooked. In fact, even those games that originally required Atari's paddle controllers, like Breakout, Canyon Bomber and Warlords, work as well with the included controllers as could be reasonably expected with a joystick, save for the paddle's unique ability to accelerate quickly. Despite the joystick connections externally looking the same as the original systems, the internal wiring is different, so the included controllers are the only option. One upside to the proprietary nature of the controllers is the fact that the 'Pause' and 'Select' buttons are now on the front of the joysticks rather than the console itself (sadly, the reset button to return you to the main menu is still on the console). Finally, unlike the normally single player nature of other TV games, the Flashback's two controllers are refreshing, delivering authentic multiplayer gaming for every game that supports it, save for Warlords unique ability to originally support four simultaneous players with two sets of paddles.

 

Sadly, where the Flashback fails is also where other TV games have failed—the quality of the emulation of the original system's abilities. Whether it was the rumored short development cycle, insufficient processing power (apparently based off of a NES/Famicom-on-a-chip!) or some other reason, the fact of the matter is these games are markedly different than their original 7800 and 2600 counterparts. The Flashback version of Asteroids for instance, has washed out colors, elongated (almost oblong) graphics and poor sound. Add to this the fact that the player's ship moves too fast and the asteroids move too slow, you have a recipe for disappointment whether you're aware of how the original is or not. The Atari 2600 games on the Flashback seem to fare a little better, but overall the presentation of all the games leaves something to be desired.

 

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 Classic Plug & Play Video Game or simply Commodore 64 30-in-1, comes in a pyramidal plastic housing for packaging, which, while nice, is not nearly as slick as Atari's standard box for the Flashback. The same can be said for the included manual, which, while not as professional as Atari's version, nevertheless describes the system and games in some detail, albeit in very tiny print.

The 30-in-1 runs exclusively on four AA batteries, which make it more portable than the Flashback, but nevertheless requires the use of a screwdriver to access the battery compartment. After placing the batteries and connecting the included composite video and mono audio cables, the unit is ready for action.

 

When the 30-in-1 starts, after a few credit screens, the Commodore 64's (C-64) familiar blue basic prompt screen appears and the classic 'Load"*",8,1' and 'Run' commands are automatically typed and executed. This is clever the first few times, but every time the unit is reset so another game can be selected from the menu, this screen and sequence is displayed. Regardless of whether this is a necessity or just something the developers thought of as a clever trick, it does get repetitive after a short while, even though it can be bypassed each time with a button press.

 

The 30 games are as follows, listed with their original publisher and release date based on information available from Lemon 64:

 

Bull Riding (Event from World Games, Epyx, 1986), Championship Wrestling (Epyx, 1986), Cyberdyne Warrior (Hewson, 1989), Cybernoid (Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine, Hewson, 1988), Cybernoid II (Cybernoid II: The Revenge, Hewson, 1988), Eliminator (Hewson, 1988), Exolon (Hewson, 1987), Firelord (Hewson, 1986), Flying Disk (Event from California Games, Epyx, 1987), Gateway to Apshai (Epyx, 1983), Impossible Mission (Epyx, 1984), Impossible Mission 2 (Epyx, 1988), Jumpman Junior (Epyx, 1983), Paradroid (Hewson, 1985), Pitstop (Epyx, 1983), Pitstop 2 (Epyx, 1984), Ranarama (Rana Rama, Hewson, 1984), Silicon Warrior (Epyx, 1984), Speedball (Image Works, 1989), Summer Games (Epyx, 1984), Super Cycle (Epyx, 1986), Sumo (Event from World Games, Epyx, 1986), Surfing (Event from California Games, Epyx, 1987), Sword of Fargoal (Epyx, 1983), Tower Toppler (Hewson, 1987), Uridium (Hewson, 1986), Winter Games (Epyx, 1985), World Karate Champion A (World Karate Championship, Epyx, 1986), World Karate Champion B (World Karate Championship, Epyx, 1986), Zynaps (Hewson, 1987)

 

While technically, the list does total 30 games - mostly from Epyx and Hewson - some unusual decisions were made to reach that total. Bull Riding and Sumo are events from within World Games, and Flying Disk and Surfing are events from California Games. Neither World Games nor California Games are included in their entirety, but Summer Games and Winter Games are. Finally, there are the variants of World Karate Championship, World Karate Champion A and B. However the total was achieved, it is nevertheless an impressive number of games for a device of this type.

 

The controller itself is self-contained, with all functions on the same device. There are two large main action buttons (C-64 joysticks always had one), a smaller reset button and four auxiliary buttons, labeled A - D, intended to help replace the C-64's keyboard functions for certain games.

 

When the game selection menu appears - in what is surely another nod to original C-64 fans - the list of games appears on a moving star field with energetic background music and scrolling credits at the bottom, bringing to mind the demo screens pirates and hackers of the day would develop to try and outdo one another in demonstrating their mastery of the hardware. The games are listed alphabetically and highlighted sequentially by moving the stick up or down. A game is selected by pressing the action button.

 

After a game is selected, it quickly starts and you're ready to begin playing. If you're familiar with the original games, you may be surprised at what appears. For instance, with Impossible Mission, after the title screen, the famous elevator sequence displays with your nemesis Elvin's voice saying, "Another visitor. Stay a while, stay forever!" What's surprising is that everything looks and sounds almost exactly like the original, certainly better than any other TV game to date. I'm sure a lot of this has to do with Jeri Ellsworth's - of C-One fame - intimate involvement in the project, since it was one of her goals to accurately recreate the C-64 on modern hardware. I'd say based on the accuracy of the emulation in this low cost consumer product, that's a realistic goal.

 

With a large and diverse selection of accurately presented games, what's not to like? Unfortunately, a classic TV game Achilles' heel has found its way into the 30-in-1 as well. The control stick, the heart of the unit, has a far "throw" (or lots of "play", the distance the stick has to travel to interpret a direction) and does not accurately register directions. For instance, in Sword of Fargoal, moving diagonally, left or right, up or down, was often an exercise in frustration as the character would be moved left into a wall rather than up as intended. This movement inaccuracy is present in every game, though some games are slightly more forgiving of this flaw due to their basic design, such as the racing game Pitstop. Nevertheless, with everything else that's so good about the unit, including the action buttons, this is a serious let down.

 

An interesting note about the 30-in-1 is that it contains the complete original C-64 BASIC ROM, so the device can be hacked to work just like an original Commodore 64, with an ability to use add-ons like keyboards, disk drives and even joysticks. Also contained within the unit are interesting Easter Eggs, or hidden surprises that need to be unlocked, like developer photos and more games.

 

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 is available exclusively from QVC and is priced at $30.00 for one unit or $52.00 for two. The Atari Flashback is available at many major retailers and priced as low as $39.99 (sale prices can be even lower).

 

Price: The 30-in-1 is usually at least $10 less, but also lacks direct support for two simultaneous players that the Flashback has. Winner: Draw

 

Number of Games: The 30-in-1 has more games, even though it's debatable if there are really 30 (not counting hidden content). Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Features: The Flashback features detachable controllers, AC power and two player simultaneous support. The 30-in-1 features an all-in-one unit, battery power, hidden content and the ability to hack the unit for expanded functionality. Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Playability: The Flashback features a simple and quick-to-access menu system and excellent control. The 30-in-1 has a slow-to-start menu and poor directional control. Winner: Atari Flashback

 

Hardware Construction: The Flashback, despite its small size, feels solid and works well. The 30-in-1 feels solid but the control stick lacks precision. Winner: Atari Flashback

 

Graphics and Sound: The 30-in-1 emulates the original games almost perfectly. The Atari Flashback fails to properly recreate the graphics, sound and speed of the original hardware. Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Overall: The 30-in-1 contains almost 30 full games whose depth benefit from originally being on a game-centric computer. The Flashback contains 20 full games that err on the simple pick up and play side as befit their console origins. The Flashback supports two players at once on certain games, while the 30-in-1 does not. The 30-in-1 will be of particular interest to those who wish to hack the unit. The major downside to the 30-in-1 is the control stick, while the major downside to the Flashback is the emulation. Final Verdict: While the Flashback controls better, the actual games are so poorly implemented that most of the fun is diminished. Alternately, the 30-in-1 controls poorly, but the games are presented basically as they were meant to be. With more games that are rarely available elsewhere, a price point that's usually at least $10 less and bonus content, the Commodore 64 30-in-1 edges out the Atari Flashback.

 


The Atari Flashback console, detachable controllers, audio-video cables and manual

The Atari Flashback unit, detachable controllers, audio-video cables and manual

From top to bottom, consoles: Atari 7800, Atari 2600jr and Atari Flashback

From top to bottom, consoles: Atari 7800, Atari 2600jr and Atari Flashback

From left to right, pack-in controllers: Atari Flashback, Atari 7800 and Atari 2600

From left to right, pack-in controllers: Atari Flashback, Atari 7800 and Atari 2600

Atari Flashback screenshot of main menu from television

Atari Flashback screenshot of main menu from television

A look inside the Atari Flashback manual

A look inside the Atari Flashback manual

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 with audio-video cables

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 with audio-video cables

A look inside the functional Commodore 30-in-1 manual

A look inside the functional Commodore 30-in-1 manual

The Commodore 30-in-1 startup sequence, sure to look familiar to any C-64 fan

The Commodore 30-in-1 startup sequence, sure to look familiar to any C-64 fan

Commodore 30-in-1 screenshot of main menu from television

Commodore 30-in-1 screenshot of main menu from television

 

Also see:

Extensive Commodore 64 30-in-1 photos and a detailed review of the Atari Flashback with photos